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Remembering Rockne, 83 years later

Knute Rockne

On this day in 1931, Knute Rockne died tragically in a plane crash. At the age of 43, Notre Dame lost its head football coach, athletic director and biggest star in the collegiate sporting world.

Because I’m far from a historian, friend of the program Jim Lefebvre, author of the excellent “Coach for a Nation: The Life and Times of Knute Rockne,” sent along this tidbit about the always enterprising Rockne. The head coach was giving motivational speeches to Studebaker salesmen, traveling around the country 20+ times on behalf of the company.

Here’s more from Lefebvre, on the tragic day from the perspective of former player Paul Castner, who helped set up Rockne’s work with Studebaker.

Rockne strongly believed that the challenges his athletes faced on the playing field prepared them well for success in life, whether in medicine, law, politics, education, or business. And so it was with Paul Castner, who became a rising star in the Studebaker car company, serving at the company’s expansive South Bend headquarters. It was Castner who had the ear of top company executives, and continually pushed them to find a role for one of America’s top motivators right under their nose…Coach Knute Rockne.

Eventually, Studebaker hired Rockne to give motivational speeches to their sales meetings across the country, and in the winter of 1931, Albert Erskine, president of Studebaker and chairman of the board of lay trustees at Notre Dame, appointed Rockne manager of sales promotion for Studebaker. Erskine was enthusiastic about the plans he approved in 1930 for a new car line named after the coach. Paul Hoffman provided Rockne with his own office at company headquarters, next to that of Jim Cleary, vice president of sales. Just down the hallway, Paul Castner had his office; he was delighted to have the coach nearby, though it was unclear how often Rockne would actually occupy his office.

It was also uncertain how the new Studebaker position would affect his “day job” as athletic director and head football coach at Notre Dame. On thing was clear: air travel seemed especially appealing to Rockne as he carried out his duties for Studebaker Corp., traveling to speak to sales meetings 20 or more times a year, in locations from coast to coast.

It’s always fun for me to imagine Rockne in today’s world of collegiate athletics. For all the grousing and grumbling about Notre Dame adding video boards or an artificial playing surface, hypothesizing how Rockne would have handled this era of profit maximization is a very enjoyable exercise. Tip of the cap to the Rock, who knew far earlier than most the power of building a brand.